Student leaders from across the country have met with Universities Minister Jo Johnson to express their disapproval of Government plans to further increase tuition fees.
The meeting brought together students from universities representing different parts of the higher education (HE) sector with MPs from all parties, giving an opportunity for both to discuss and challenge the practicalities of the Higher Education and Research Bill. As well as this, attendees debated the principles underlying the Government’s reforms with Mr Johnson.
The Bill is the first of its kind for a decade, and includes some of the biggest university reforms in recent years. Published by the Government in May - after being set out in the Queen’s Speech - it will enact the reforms in the recent white paper, Success as a Knowledge Economy.
The students and members of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Students, who hosted the roundtable, said they were pleased Mr Johnson engaged constructively with their views and concerns as they highlighted the areas of the university reforms students will continue to push back on as the Bill moves forward.
These included the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF), with students arguing against the proposal to link TEF with an increase in fees, a move which caused mass outrage in May as the wider HE sector argued that students were already being saddled with too much debt.
Attendees at the meeting also discussed the need for a stricter regulatory regime for new providers and substantive student protections requirements, while the third point discussed was the need to make “meaningful change” to widening access and participation, as the students made it clear they want to be included and listened to in any debates about the future of the HE system.
Sorana Vieru, National Union of Students (NUS) vice president of HE, said it was “appreciated” the Minister took the time to hear students out. She said: “We have expressed major concerns about how helpful increasing competition actually is to students. Despite this, competition is at the heart of the HE Bill and the wider white paper reforms.
“We remain unconvinced that driving universities to behave in a more competitive manner will improve quality and opportunities for students. We urged the Minister to decouple any measures of teaching excellence from fee rises, and we hope the student voice will be listened to and strengthened in the future.
“Students have shown right from the start they care about these reforms and want to contribute their thoughts. One in eight responses to the green paper came specifically from students’ unions, and this week has been testament to the deep engagement students have had with the proposals.”
Announcing the publication of the Bill in May, the Government said it planned to introduce new legislation to give more young people the opportunity to access high-quality university education and “boost life chances and opportunity for all.”
The NUS, however, criticised the Bill for seeking to marketise the HE sector, calling it a “failed experiment,” insisting the Government’s repeated attempts to turn students into consumers are having “a devastating impact,” citing “huge drops” in mature and part-time student numbers as one of the consequences of the agenda.
Vowing to keep fighting any rise in tuition fees, and working to ensure students are protected from the “dangerous reforms” proposed in both the white paper and Bill, the NUS said: “We are extremely concerned about how well students will be protected if the Government makes it easier for new providers to enter the sector. Students risk losing both their time and money if untested providers do not meet strict requirements.”
Mr Johnson, however, said after the white paper’s publication that, if the UK’s universities are to remain competitive and ensure a high-quality education remains open to all, “we cannot stand still.”
He said: “Making it easier for high-quality challenger institutions to start offering their own degrees will help drive up teaching quality, boost the economy, and extend aspiration and life chances for students from all backgrounds.”
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